Table Talk

At first glance, the leafy, tree-lined stretch of Dryades Street between Soniat Street and Napoleon Avenue appears mostly residential. But scattered around this neighborhood are several good dining destinations. Anchored by Gautreau’s at one end and Pascal’s Manale at the other, the area has recently seen the addition of the casual Italian café Il Posto. And with the butter-drenched promise of Charlie’s Steakhouse on the horizon, this nice little collection of establishments offers a wide range of dining options.

Tucked away on Soniat Street, discretion seems to be a guiding principle of Gautreau’s. Since reopening a year ago with emerging talent Sue Zemanick behind the stove and charismatic proprietor Patrick Singley again presiding over the clubby dining room, it has found its stride as it hums along with its quintessential, understated elegance.

Chef Zemanick’s menu focuses on classic French preparations and features uncommon dishes such as her Provencal-inspired appetizer of Sautéed Brandade Cake with basil aioli. Another appetizer of twin Sea Scallops arrived seared to a caramelized crispness, the meat inside cooked to opaque perfection. Both were laid atop a bed of fresh fettuccine tossed with marinated tomatoes and smoky bits of diced bacon. Dollops of fresh pesto added to the palette of flavors.

Crispy Sweetbreads came pan-fried and garnished with Louisiana crabmeat in a lemon beurre blanc and potatoes prepared in the classic Brabant style. I’ve had sweetbread dishes prepared elsewhere that obscure rather than elevate the offal – but not here. The beurre blanc provided richness without obscuring their delicacy.

For entrées, don’t overlook the Roasted Chicken, often a bellwether dish on any serious French menu. A simply composed dish well executed here, it featured two chicken breasts cut in the airline style, a manner which preserves a small amount of bone that allows the meat to be juicier and more flavorful when cooked. The skin was crisp and tasty, and the bird was rested atop a nest of garlic mashed potatoes floating in a sea of jus, flanked by harcourt verts. Another entrée of Sautéed Grouper was notable for its silky, lobster-infused Américaine sauce. The lobster quotient was ratcheted up a notch with accompanying chunks of the crustacean. A scattering of house-made gnocchi contributed some starch.

Desserts seem a more straightforward affair than the savory side of the menu, featuring classic staples such as Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée and Flourless Chocolate Cake. Next time I go I’ll likely try the retro-inspired Caramelized Banana Split with walnuts, butterscotch and fudge sauce. To augment their desserts, Gautreau’s features a well-selected assemblage of after dinner wines, single malt scotches and other cordials.
But Gautreau’s only serves dinner and is more of a special occasion destination. One thing that this neighborhood lacked was a casual place for lunch. This niche has now been filled by Il Posto, an Italian-inspired café that offers up a warm and friendly locale for light breakfasts and lunch.

Il Posto is owned and operated by first-time small business owner Madison Curry. Prior to opening Il Posto, Curry worked at The St. James Cheese Company. Connections made there come into play at Il Posto, such as the selection of cheese and the soups, composed by Chef Corbin Evans. Additionally, the H&H bagels are imported from New York along with the coffee, which Madison buys from a former employer in Manhattan. “I get my coffee from my old bosses in New York,” she says. “They take their coffee very seriously.”

In a city inundated with mega-caloric poor boys, here you’ll find a lighter palette of sandwich offerings, which are no less tasty. The menu offers up a carefully-composed selection of soups, salads and pressed sandwiches assembled with top-shelf ingredients. The Classic Prosciutto is made with Prosciutto San Danielle and fresh mozzarella on pressed Ciabatta. A smear of basil pesto gives it a little complexity.

On a cold day, the soup and sandwich combo hits the spot. The simple Grilled Cheese is made with a mild and tasty fontina. A Tuscan-style White Bean and Prosciutto Soup complemented the cheese. Other popular items include the Antipasti platter, a selection of roasted vegetables along with two meats and two cheeses, olives, fruits and nuts. “Our most popular salad right now is the Beet and Walnut Salad,” Curry says. Breakfast items include granola, fruit and yogurt, along with a pleasant place to relax and peruse the morning paper.

Just down the street, the venerable Pascal’s Manale, family owned and operated since 1913, manages to be two things in one: a lively oyster bar up front and a genteel dining destination popular with families and the older set in the back. Accommodating both is an elegant, carved wooden bar that specializes in classic cocktails and other unpretentious libations.

The dish most associated with Manale’s is, of course, its misnomered BBQ Shrimp, which originated here and whose myriad iterations have since spread city-wide. A generous mound of plump, peel-and-eat gulf shrimp swimming in a bowl of molten butter and pepper – in tackling them I created a Jackson Pollock-style vectoring of grease splatters and shrimp whiskers upon the tablecloth. The bib helps some but, if you order this dish don’t be wearing anything nice. Prudence would dictate that this goes for your date as well. Napkins essentially play a triage role in that they clean your hands enough to make a break for the restroom sink. If you crave the shrimp but don’t want the mess, try their BBQ Shrimp Poor Boy for lunch, which comes in a self-contained, easy-to-tackle French bread form.

Other good dishes include the Pan Roast, a combination of oysters, shrimp, crab, parsley, garlic and butter, broiled to a toasty brown on top. My father has always been a fan of the meatballs and spaghetti  made with ground veal. This is good comfort food. No fresh-grated parmesan here – it’ll be that granular stuff from the cardboard cylinder – but that’s part of the appeal.

The only thing missing is the classic sports memorabilia that used to hang in the dining room. I hear they stored it upstairs following the remediation; here’s hoping it finds its way back onto the walls. This is a place where people go to seek reassurance and I get the feeling that both customers and staff aren’t in the mood to try anything new or different. Approached with this understanding, Pascal’s Manale remains a neighborhood gem.

1728 Soniat St.

Il Posto Italian Café
4607 Dryades St.

Pascal’s Manale
1838 Napoleon Ave. (Corner of Dryades Street)

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